Every Rosh HaShanah I am mystified. As the Torahs are carried aloft to the accompaniment of our voices in a great communal event, how many of us ponder the significance to the holiday of the words we are singing: “there are three things upon which the world is built, al haTorah, al haavodah, service, al g’milut chasadim, loving kindness.” And then as we continue the words from Isaiah ring out “we shall beat our swords into plowshares, we shall not learn war anymore”.
Do we ponder these words, as we read the story of God’s fulfillment of the promise of a son to Abraham about how God through the angels took pity at the tears of Hagar? As she hid herself thinking her son Ishmael might die in the desert, as their last water ran dry, what were the rabbis thinking when they chose this section with its ambiguous ending as the first parsha for the New Year?
Do we think about the reading from Genesis immediately following on that first day about how Abraham made peace with Abimelech, the Philistine ruler of Gath, at the initiative of Abimelech, himself and the closing ‘and Abraham resided in the land of the Philistines (as a sojourner) for a long time.’
In fact our earliest biblical stories, when placed along side almost all of the vast literature we have uncovered from the Ancient Near East, is unique in its human side, in its perspective on the subject of those on the margins: on the role of women in society, and on the shedding of tears, most significantly by grown men.
Esau embraces a fearful Jacob, his returning brother, and sheds tears, Esau, who had his birthright stolen, who had every reason for long harboring anger and revenge. Joseph has to leave the room to compose himself, as he breaks down in tears, as he prepares to reveal and reconcile himself with his brothers. These are the brothers who had years before left him in the pit to die or sold him into slavery, depending on which version you read.
David, too, has difficulty controlling himself as he composes a song of mourning, to his closest friend, Jonathan, whose love is praised comparing it to the love of a woman, when he learns of his friend’s fall in his last battle with the Philistines. Abraham tests God’s sense of justice in the case against Sodom and Gomorrah, before God tests Abraham on Mount Moriah.
Tamar tests Judah, Hannah challenges Eli, Deborah leads all Israel in partnership with Barak, Ruth sticks by Naomi. The role of women in the biblical stories did not necessarily need a Red Tent to highlight for us the prominent role of women in the biblical account, though it did help us re-reflect on these things of which we might have lost sight.
And most intriguing of all is the rabbinic interpretaion of the Shevarim shofar notes as tears, not just any tears, but the tears of Sisera’s mother on the death of her son from the story of Deborah. Sisera was the Canaanite general who was defeated by Deborah and Barak. He sought shelter with Jair and she killed him while he was sleeping. Sisrea’s mother does not know this and she looks out her window wondering what is keeping her son, possibly the spoils of battle. She does not shed tears yet a talmudic tradtion has her do this and links it to possibility of change and the shofar notes. (from an on-and-off conversation Rabbi Marc and I have had over time)
We do not often approach the accounts in the Torah and the other books in this way. But these stories are some of the oldest in our history as a people and go back even hundreds of years before the Exodus from Egypt. They, along with the story of Egypt and the sojourn in the desert, eventually changed the course of Western civilization. So it is worth some consideration as to how they might have come about, since they are stories that are both inclusive and reflective of the egalitarian society from which they emerged.
How Might These Stories Have Come To Pass?
I am told that the rabbis were always especially concerned about those on the margins of society. Perhaps it is because when those stories from the Torah were being discussed and reapplied by the rabbis to the present, as was the case in the centuries around the beginning of the Common Era, we were already, as a people, on the margins, ourselves, spread out from Babylon to Egypt and across the Roman Empire.
So was this because we now fully understood and empathized with the position of the “other”? Was this why the rabbis chose this particular full story of Abraham as father of his people to include Hagar and Phicol for the first reading on Rosh HaShanah?
The world in which the Biblical stories were first told was a non-heirarchial, egalitarian society with an alphabetic script much more readily available to all than the large number of syllabic based scripts that came before. Is it any wonder that a simple shepherd like Amos could express himself so eloquently on issues of social justice and had a knowledge of the complexities and history of his larger world that many of us miss in our own worlds today.
Weren’t we always a people on the margins? So it is important to understand how the original stories in the Torah might have come to be in the first place?
Our people were situated on the margins in between the great powers of Mesopotamia and Egypt. We were caught in the middle. The kingdoms of Saul, David, then Israel and Judah arose and prospered precisely during the hundreds of years between the catastrophic fall of the Late Bronze Age civilizations in the twelfth century B.C.E. until the eighth and seventh centuries when these major powers began to recover.
The biblical stories that came out of that environment were deeply psychological character studies. That is why they had the appeal for so many following. The Egyptian tales and Gilgamesh (more so) have some of that flavor, but not the full breadth and extent of these stories. The biblical stories were the first great Western humanist literature.
In the Words of the Prophet Amos
There are in the words of Amos, the earliest of the written prophets, some of this early understanding of those on the margins. Amos was a mere shepherd, from the area of the Dead Sea. He preached social justice to Israel in the last days of the kingdom, when it was feeling a false sense of security during a temporary eclipse of the Assyrian power, just before Israel’s rapid catastrophic and final decline.
Look how Amos begins: Leading up to Israel, he condemns the Syrians, Philistines, Phoenicians, Edom, Moab, and Ammon (across Jordan) not as enemies of Israel or Judah, as in some later prophets, but for their inhumanity and violence done to each other as brothers. In other words their transgressions were condemned because they broke the bonds of kinship andd made war on each other, raped and pillaged, delivered their brothers into slavery. These other peoples were brothers.
But Israel has gone one step further, they have warred against their own people by ‘selling the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes’, ‘trampled the head of the poor into the dust of the earth”. Amos’ complaint is not abouit the worship of foreign gods, but about the failure to live up to the ideals that were born of a common religion by breaking the social covenant formed in the wilderness. Justice and righteousness go hand in hand. The message is hard, the destruction of the main Israelite sanctuary of Bethel, the fall of the kingdom and return to slavery, too hard for the priests of Bethel to bear.
But the closing lines return again to the theme of brotherhood:
“Are you not like the Ethiopeans to me Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir”
“You only have I known of all the families of the earth” he tells Israel/Ephraim, but all these peoples are also his children!! Amos even knows the Sea Peoples origins of the Philistines from four hundred years before, if Caphtor is Cyprus, the only biblical or extra-biblical mention of the place of their origins.
Amos’ words are important because the kingdom of Israel was still alive and the more powerful of its two brother kingdoms. It is not the later version of history told by the survivors of their brothers in the south a few hundred years later in terms of religious apostasy and foreign gods, worhsipped. Where did this all come from?
A Critical Shift in Human Thought?
Among the first millenium Hebrews, recording in an easy to learn alphabet and spreading literacy, a great literature evolved, the first people’s story that so influenced the world, especially the Western world (India and the China followed later in similar paths and under similar conditions developed their own paths to the great philosophies and for similar reasons).
The story begins in the early years of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages across the Near East four hundred years before the Exodus. The winds of trade and commerce flourished for four hundred years among a diversity of states and cultures, most of whom were bound by kinship ties, like the Hittites in Anatolia and the Hyksos in Syria/Palestine, across Mesopotamia, and most notably in Crete. There in Crete an almost modern civilization evolved without any walled cities, no signs of war or violence, a trading civilization with ties to Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, where women played such a major religious and probably political role as we can see in the murals they left behind all over the island. These civilizations linked by trade were the original ‘band of brothers’ as their rulers attest to in their correspondence and mutual treaty relationships similar in form and wording, it has been noted, to the later covenant language establishing the relationship between Israel and her God (as Israel’s king).
The Hyksos is of special interest to the origins of the Hebrews. Centered in Syria/Canaan, the large Hyksos confederation of tribes took over the Nile Delta and with Nubian allies controlled Egypt for 150 years in the late seventeenth century. Was this where our forefathers and the early stories of Jacob, Joesph in Egypt, and Abraham originated? Were they were later written down in the earliest alphabetic scripts derived from an Egyptian system and which first appears in Egyptian copper mines in the Sinai presumably scrawled on the walls by slaves or workers.
We began as a tribal society, non-heirerarchial in nature. Once slaves in Egypt, we were the earliest users of the alphabet, an alphabet that encouraged literacy and democratic ideas. No wonder our prophets focused on social justice and were the first to express the hope that we would turn our swords into plowshares and learn war no more.
The earlier Late Bronze Age civilization survives in correspondence between rulers and in Crete and Greece in their wall art. But being largely official and commercial, and most importantly in a large number of difficult to learn syllabic signs, their human stories were long buried in the ashes of the cities and their official archives which disappeared in the Late Bronze Collapse and never passed down. But among the first millenium Hebrews recording in an easy to learn alphabet and spreading literacy, a great literature evolved, the first people’s story whose legacy became that of the Western world.
We do well to consider these stories being told here about equality and brotherhood and the conditions that might have led to them. Perhaps there is hope after all.